Spoiler Alert: 9 Ways Netflix Botched Their Remake of 'Rebecca'
Netflix fails spectacularly in remaking a Hitchcock Classic, 'Rebecca'
Netflix’s remake of the 1940 Alfred Hitchcock masterpiece, Rebecca, is not good. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a handsome movie, well staged with two terrific lead actors in Lily James and Armie Hammer. Unfortunately, the writers and director Ben Wheatley let everyone else down by failing to understand what made the original Rebecca a master work that remains relevant and witty to this day.
Here are 9 failings of the remake of Rebecca in no specific order. This list will be riddled with spoilers so if you want to be surprised when you watch the new Rebecca, debuting on Netflix on October 21st, or when you watch the original, brilliant, 1940 version of Rebecca, go watch the original now and come back.
9. Ruining Mrs Danvers - When Kristen Scott Thomas landed the role of Mrs Danvers she must have been excited for the chance to take on this iconic role. In 1940 Judith Anderson was given the role of a lifetime, a horror movie villain with no prosthetic's or heavy face paint, just a coal black soul and willingness to do anything to achieve her aim of preserving the legacy of Rebecca de Winter.
What a shame then that director Ben Wheatley strips away so much of the character. Gone is the moment where a seemingly benevolent Mrs Danvers recommends a costume to the second Mrs de Winter while knowing that the costume was that of Rebecca and that it would undoubtedly harm the already fragile relationship between the second Mrs de Winter and her husband. The scene and the intent is still there but it is muted by the choice to have Mrs Danvers act indirectly, through the character of a maid, rather than doing it herself, something rendered pointless when she subsequently admits to intentionally humiliating the second Mrs de Winter.
Also cut from the remake is most of Mrs Danvers’ terrifying monologue, a glorious 4 minute monologue filled with nasty invective, delivered with scalpel-like precision. Mrs Danvers nearly convincing the second Mrs de Winter to kill herself is a classic movie scene, a horror grounded in reality, hypnotic but with no supernatural quality other than Danvers' inhuman malevolence. It’s a glorious scene and in the remake it lasts less than a minute and carries none of the power of the original monologue before being cut off far too soon.
8. Danvers’ Death Scene - This gutted me. Changing the manner of Danvers’ death is so arbitrary and it betrays her nasty, tough, demeanor. The remake of Rebecca has Mrs Danvers commit suicide by dropping into the ocean. In the original, Danvers’ death is a glorious bacchanal of destruction and attempted murder. Danvers dies gloriously and takes Manderley with her and nearly takes the second Mrs de Winter with her as well, fitting of her feelings toward the second Mrs de Winter. The new death renders Mrs Danvers as pathetic while the original made her iconically crazy. In the original Danvers feels essential. In the remake, she’s merely a modest obstacle to the happiness of the new couple. Ugh!
7. The Ghost of Rebecca - Hitchcock brilliantly rendered Rebecca de Winter a ghost without being in any way supernatural. Rebecca doesn’t appear in shadows or as a specter but her presence lingers everywhere from the room she no longer inhabits on the West end of Manderley to the ways in which the staff of Manderley still seem to be serving Rebecca long after she’s dead. In Hitchcock’s conception even Rebecca’s monogram carries the weight of a burden that the second Mrs de Winter cannot fully bear.
In the remake, Rebecca is kind of around. Her room is still being kept up by Mrs Danvers but scenes set in the room no longer have the weight they deserve. Hitchcock used the space of Manderley to render Rebecca specter-less specter. The remake has Armie Hammer sleepwalking for no reason and Lily James suffering from mad, waking nightmares that fail to add anything to the character but do underline how bankrupt of ideas the remake is. Yes, the nightmares have a strong visual sensibility, but they don’t say anything interesting about the second Mrs de Winter.
6 Jack Favell - George Sanders deserved an Oscar nomination for his unctuous, fatuous and insidious portrayal of Jack Favell in 1940’s Rebecca. Favell is the lynchpin of Rebecca, if you are going to remake Rebecca you need to make sure you nail the Jack Favell character and the remake fails miserably. Instead of creating a glorious, obnoxious cad that we cannot wait to see get his comeuppance, the new Rebecca renders Jack a pathetic doofus. Hitchcock brilliantly used Favell’s blackmail scheme to shine a light on his satire of the class system and how protected the rich are from the darker side of society.
Billionaires can get away with anything and the system will knowingly fall in line when someone with wealth, breeding and privilege comes along. Favell may have the truth on his side but he’s such a jerk, such a low life and of such low character that it makes sense that he’s made a fool of, even if he’s technically correct about Rebecca’s manner of death not being a suicide. The new movie has Favell’s blackmail scheme work, to a point, and it makes Hammer’s version of Mr de Winter look smaller in comparison to Olivier’s superb and always in command version of the character. As bad as the take on Favell in the modern remake is, it is perhaps what the changes to Favell do to Mr de Winter’s character that truly make this such a massive misfire in the modern Rebecca.
5. A Courtroom Cliche - The original Rebecca featured a coroner’s inquest rather than a trial. But, I imagine, since many people don’t know what a coroner’s inquest is, changing it to a straight ahead court battle makes sense. Most everything in the remake of Rebecca is intended to dumb down the source material and make it more palatable to a less discerning audience so why not a courtroom cliche. The modern remake casts Mark Lewis Jones as Inspector Welch and has him decide immediately that Mr de Winter is guilty of foul play in Rebecca’s death and removes all notions of the satire of privilege that was Hitchcock’s true inspiration.
Hitchcock intended on having Mr de Winter be directly responsible for Rebecca’s death and get away with it with Joan Fontaine's Mrs de Winter a co-conspirator in the cover up. That was nixed by the censorship rules of the day which would not allow a character to get away with murder, even if it made sense for the story being told. The story of Rebecca is a story of privilege and wealth. The wealthy can get away with anything with little cost. The punishment was the loss of Manderley to the fire started by Mrs Danvers when it was clear Mr de Winter had escaped punishment. That Hitchcock managed to make the convoluted choices at the end of Rebecca 1940 work with his intended dark satire is a strong indication of his genius.
4. Nancy Drew - Not to impugn the good name and integrity of one Nancy Drew but her style of sleuthing has no place in an adult drama like Rebecca. And yet, Ben Wheatley and company thought it would be a good idea to turn the Second Mrs de Winter into Nancy Drew at the end of this bad remake because by then, I presume, another awful decision wasn’t going to make things much worse. It would have been difficult to ruin Rebecca any more than they had when they finally had the Second Mrs de Winter snooping through a doctors office while men with flashlights searched for her and her very obvious ruse.
The original smartly kept the Second Mrs de Winter home at Manderley where the real drama was unfolding with the unraveling of Mrs Danvers. The original ending crackled with wit and energy as the bored investigator handily dismissed Mr Favell’s claims about murder and sent Mr de Winter on his way back to Manderley a free man. The fiery conflagration at Manderley was the perfect coda to the original. It just made sense and it made for a surprising reveal with suspense as to whether or not Joan Fontaine’s Mrs de Winter was still alive. I hate the remake for this change perhaps more than any other.
3. A Watery Grave - Mr de Winter’s fear of water was an important aspect of laying the groundwork for the big reveal of his secret, that he’d covered up Rebecca’s death by scuttling their boat with her body inside. Talk of water then became not unlike the beating of that hideous heart in Edgar Allan Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart. At first we assume that water reminds Mr de Winter of the death of his beloved wife. We are then upended to find that water reminds him of his crime, his insecurity, his shame, a secret that could destroy his life.
So, what does the remake do? It has Mr de Winter in the first act take the future second Mrs de Winter on a picnic on the beach. Then, the two go swimming together in a scene soon after that. Thus, one of the most important aspects of Mr de Winter’s character is deleted from the movie. In its place, a sleepwalking plot. Mr de Winter begins to sleepwalk. What does this reveal about his character? Nothing, not one thing. There is absolutely no attempt to tie his sleepwalking to Rebecca’s death, his feelings about Rebecca’s death or the guilt, fear, and shame that is supposed to be driving his whole story.
2. Dreaming of Nicholas Winding Refn - Ben Wheatley as a director is a strong stylist. The modern Rebecca is a handsome movie. Some of the visuals are so striking that they reminded me of the work of another strong visual stylist, Nicholas Winding Refn whose film, The Neon Demon, carries a similar visual charge. Unfortunately, those visual charges in Rebecca 2020 only serve to undermine the story. In the original Rebecca, the character of Rebecca is built in dialogue and character interaction.
The second Mrs de Winter talks to the staff about something and Rebecca comes up, Mrs Danvers can only seem to bring up Rebecca in every interaction and in trying to understand more about her husband, the second Mrs de Winter spends scenes talking with Mr de Winter’s best friend Frank Crawley about Rebecca and has a lengthy conversation with Jack Favell about Rebecca. These scenes bring Rebecca to life, she’s vital, she’s lingering everywhere like a ghost that isn’t a ghost.
The remake flubs these scenes, they fail to make Rebecca feel like anything other than a corpse. The worst aspect of this comes in a series of dream sequences where a disoriented Rebecca’s feelings about being in the shadow of Rebecca at all times come out in the form of a dizzying array of artfully shot but pointless nightmares. Show don’t tell is a great rule unless what you’re showing is failing to tell us anything.
1. Botching an Iconic Scene - The reveal of Mr de Winter’s real feelings toward Rebecca and how he watched her die and disposed of her body is one of the greatest scenes in the careers of both Alfred Hitchcock and Lawrence Olivier. Actor and director work in concert to amp up the tension and the shifting tone of anger, heartache, resentment, fear and eventually, a solemn and shocking cover up pact. Joan Fontaine’s emotions run the gamut as her husband lays his soul bare for the first time. In this iconic scene Mr de Winter finally lowers his macho veneer and reveals his vulnerability via his deepest darkest secret.
Having been cuckolded by Rebecca he wanted her dead and got his wish without having to do the deed himself. So how does the remake handle this scene? Just as clumsily and rushed as it handles every other scene. Gone is the set up wherein Mr de Winter disappears and is thought possibly to have died helping in the search for survivors of the shipwreck that ultimately saved his wife from killing herself with the help of Mrs Danvers. Gone is the fraught tension of moving from that iconic scene into this one. Gone is the pitch perfect delivery of Olivier stating passionately that he never loved Rebecca. In its place, a bland and rushed scene that, by the poor design of everything came before it, lacks the needed energy and tension to be anything more than a dreary let down.